By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz
First published in The Malay Mail and The Borneo Post on 4th April 2014
My recent trip to New Zealand was preceded by a Gala Night organised by the High Commission entitled ‘Lima Mata Ikan – Rima Mata Ika’: Five Fish Eyes in Malay and Maori respectively. It was effective cultural diplomacy augmented by a trade and investment angle: present was a delegation of 40 businesspeople who had just visited Kuching, headed
by the Minister of Maori Affairs.
I met the minister again later that week at the Second International Maori-Malay-Polynesian Conference in Waitangi (Maori ‘wai’ is Malay ‘air’ and ‘tangi’ is ‘nangis’ — ‘crying water’) in the Bay of Islands north of Auckland. Here in 1834 an international trade flag of the United Tribes was adopted, followed in 1835 by a Declaration of Independence that was recognised by Britain, France and the USA. In 1840, a treaty was signed between Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown that confirmed a new nation: very different to the Australian narrative.
The first conference occurred in Seremban in 2012 at the initiative of Malaysian university professors and enthusiasts of the Malay World: they asked me to give a speech, and subsequently invited me to become patron of a new organisation to promote the shared roots between the peoples of Nusantara and Polynesia. I was sceptical at first, but the evidence of genetic, cultural and linguistic kinship is extensive – apart from the five already mentioned other similar words are api/ahi, mati/mate, telinga/taringa, benua/fenua, daun/rau – and Samoan words are even closer to Malay, consistent with the idea that Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand meaning Land of the Long White Cloud) was the last island to be settled by Polynesians. This is the legacy of the Proto-Malayo-Polynesian language that long predated Sanskrit influence.
In my keynote address I mentioned the importance of meeting people ‘nose-to-nose’ (as per the hongi, the traditional Maori greeting), and my curiosity of local history and culture was satiated by my generous hosts, headed by Chief Matutaera Te Nana Clendon — one of several participants who had served in Commonwealth forces during the Malayan Emergency. Such are the quirks of history, and fittingly, New Zealand’s connections towards Asia and the Pacific are finally coming to the fore — just as is happening with Australia and the US pivot. (Departing KLIA, I was surprised that MH131 to Auckland is considered a regional flight, leaving from the main terminal rather than the satellite building.)
Over the next four days a huge variety of topics was discussed by academics and practitioners from many nations, covering everything from anthropology, sociology and linguistics to entrepreneurship, agriculture and medicine. There were certainly shades of opinion and ideology, especially in economic policy, ranging from keen interventionists to champions of trade. New Zealand is statistically a rich country, but income inequality and demographic change are issues, with Maori constituting just 15 per cent of the country’s four million people.
My visit to Turangawaewae House in Ngaruawahia significantly boosted my understanding of these many strands. There I was received by the son of King Tuheitia — a direct descendant of a chief elected Maori King in 1858 to better deal with the British Crown (though not all tribes participated in that event). After exchanging observations of the many linguistic and cultural similarities between our peoples, the conversation quickly moved to more contemporary issues: bilateral trade, investment opportunities and domestic policy also.
There was time for leisure too. On a boat cruise that featured entering a large hole in a rock formation I had seen more dolphins than I had in my entire life, and we stopped at an island – the re-established home of a tribe after an earlier land-grab – where another legacy of Europeans, sheep, were in abundance. The views from the top of the hill were postcard-perfect.
I returned to Malaysia with a multitude of gifts, but two are particularly special: a royal Manihiki robe made of tree bark complete with feathered headgear and shellfish neckwear, and a Talking [sic] Stick crafted by a renowned master carver from wood from across the Pacific Islands, topped by a piece of bone from a naturally beached whale.
Much more could be said about this most culturally immersive experience, but I must finish with a domestic thought. Here, the Malay identity is often invoked as a modern phenomenon with powerful political consequences. But in anthropological terms, the Malayo-Polynesian people have a much more ancient and potently inspiring legacy. As the Minister of Maori Affairs said, they were marine engineers and astro-navigators. We should get to know them and the distant relatives they produced. To quote a Maori proverb: “What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.”
Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is patron of the World Melayu-Polynesian Organisation.